SURREY – Why should you get out and vote this Saturday?
Because municipal politicians have a profound effect on the day-to-day lives of residents, says Gordon Price, former Vancouver councillor and director of SFU’s City Program.
“If you’re looking at both the civic and regional levels, you can go so far as to say our lives are dependent on it. And I’m not talking about crime here – I’m talking about basic things such as water.”
Price said during his time CI IC sitting on regional boards, he found the things he paid the least attention to were the most important – again, like water.
Taking care of basic services such as water, sewage, solid waste and garbage are done at the municipal level.
People tend take those services for granted, he noted, because they are generally managed well and affordably.
“Unfortunately, it leads to complacency, so that they don’t think it’s that necessary to even pay attention or to vote. Even though, if you didn’t have these things well managed, the consequences would be disastrous,” Price said. “So you’ve got these real extremes – the most mundane and boring may be actually the most important.”
Land-use regulation is another important power that cities have, he said, which includes
development and building permits.
“That’s the main, really fundamental, shaping of the city. What goes where, what can you build and how do you get there?” He said there are critical decisions to be made in fast-growing cities such as Surrey, which are “just trying to keep swimming upstream as fast as they can against the torrent of growth.”
“You can make the case that the stakes are much higher in places like Surrey, because you’re dealing with this rate of growth, you’re dealing with the original shaping of the municipality. Those consequences, really, almost makes you immortal in a way. They may never know your name but the decisions that you’re making on the basic infrastructure and shape of the municipality, it’s really its character in a profound way.”
That can be seen already in the city’s downtown core, he noted, sure to be a legacy of the outgoing Mayor Dianne Watts. Then there are areas where governmental jurisdiction isn’t as clear as with land use, Price said, pointing to transportation.
The province is responsible for major roads, while municipalities have jurisdiction over local roads, he explained. And the federal government can’t fund major roads directly, they have to come to an agreement where the federal government puts up money but it goes to the province, he added.
South Fraser Perimeter Road is an example, he said.
“Who has the responsibility?” Price asked.
“Well, presumably the municipality for local roads, which they do, but not the major highways. Nonetheless, the major highway is like the huge shaping course, like the Port Mann Bridge and Highway One.
“That’s opened up Surrey. It made Surrey in the 1950s and ’60s possible. So the municipality has to respond to all that. They have to build all the connecting roads, and where they zone business and industrial.
“But obviously they are shaped incredibly by the decisions of the federal and provincial government.”
He said for that reason you can’t separate out distinct powers because one has such an effect on the other.
Price said Surrey is a good example, now that it has made a commitment to development to what will be “pretty inarguably” one of the most significant suburban downtowns in the region.
“You can see again, the city’s ability to shape land use to make these capital decisions, such as the library, that then attract economic activity, great public spaces, university, transit,” he said.
“As Surrey becomes more urban, it’s fundamentally shaped by the decisions that come out of Surrey city hall.”
But, he said it started with investments from the province, such as to extend SkyTrain into Surrey. And then there are the bridges and the roads that opened it up in
the first place.
“It starts with big capital infrastructure decisions made by senior governments, that the local governments then have to respond to.”
Asked about the immediate effects of having underqualified representatives in municipal seats, Price said there wouldn’t be much change because cities are well managed by senior staff.
“Basically, in our system, we have fairly weak councils, and certainly weak mayors – they are just one vote on council,” he noted.
“They have a big impact on leadership and city policy, but almost all cities have city managers and then senior staff who basically run the day-to-day operations.”
Price added major change “couldn’t happen overnight.”
VOTER TURNOUT Despite how important some experts say it is to vote municipally, voter turnout has been low in Surrey for years.
The 2005 civic election saw 35.1 per cent of voters cast their ballot. That went down to 24.1 per cent in the 2008 election and then went up slightly to 25 per cent in the last election in 2011.
While many believe their vote doesn’t matter, Price argues that it does, and perhaps most at the civic level.
“It’s probably the one place where it can make a huge difference. Sometimes literally it might be 10 people, certainly, less than a hundred and definitely a thousand, that can determine who really is going to run city hall.”